Lockdown life is dragging on and I’m trying my hardest to adjust to a “new normal”. Some things are definitely better than before (like working from home) but I miss races, travelling and my buddies whole-heartedly.
My running relationship has had more ups & downs than usual since March with weeks where I love the freedom of no races and having to feel fit, to weeks where I simply cannot be bothered to run fast. I’m yet to experience a total “I don’t want to run” but I’m half prepared for that feeling appearing…
To pull myself out of the dark cloud in a lull week I decided to give myself a challenge. I was supposed to be racing the Centurion North Downs Way 50 mile race but this postponement left a hole in my calendar and a fitness that was asking to be used. I decided to tackle two birds with one run and join the Centurion One challenge with a 50k effort but double up on an FKT route not too far from home called the Mid Sussex Link. This is a 36 mile route starting in East Grinstead and finishing in Portslade-by-Sea following the Sussex Border Path between East and West Sussex.
Now, ordinarily I would only take on a route that I knew and had recced but hey just to add to the adventure this was a brand new route to me. It crossed through a lot of trails I knew well but as a lesser-known route it had the potential to be much quieter which is great for the now seasoned social-distancer.
With only a week of preparation, the key focus was on nutrition. My coach Robbie was keen for me to try and take on as many grams of carbohydrate as I could – he shared a study where there had been tests on mountain marathon runners using 120g carbs an hour (I KNOW!). Although I was doubtful I could physically stomach this, I prepared enough fuel for 60g carbs an hour (with some extras!) as a mixture of Maurten energy drink, GU gels, Soreen (with butter), Rice Krispie squares and some little cheese sandwiches. Luckily I was to have gold-rated crew of Dan & Albie on hand to replenish my stocks and fill my bottles!
Before I continue my tale, some things about getting an official FKT – you cannot keep stopping your watch, it’s from the moment you start to the moment you finish and yes, this includes food breaks and wee breaks. You have to document your travel through so taking photos that are time and location stamped for proof and you have to upload the original data from your watch. Pretty standard and I’m sure some people still cheat but where’s the fun in that?
As the day loomed, I felt some of those familiar race nerves and anticipation tingling. This would be by far the furthest I had run alone, it was a brand new route for me and the weather forecast was to be HOT. We set off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and Dan set me off on my way from East Grinstead train station. The heart rate monitor was on (a strict zone 2 rule in place) and I had to hold back hard in those first miles. It felt so good to be off into the unknown. 14 miles to go until my first aid stop…
The first section was probably the hardest to navigate. Mostly due to an angry farmer who had moved the footpath and blocked me from running through his field. Unfortunately for him, I ended up running circles in another of his fields to which he told me off. No big smiles or apologies would grant me help from him so my only option was to loop around and retrace the route back to the gate he wouldn’t let me though…hello an extra 3 miles. I could have been upset and angry but the adventure was more important. Extra time spent out was time to take off the next attempt…
As I weaved my way through woodland and fields I just felt to happy, grateful and relieved to be able to be challenging myself. The temperatures started to climb and I was so pleased to see Dan and Albie with a big bottle of water waiting for me 14 miles in. Happy days.
The trail continued through woods and skirting fields but the day was getting hotter and hotter. A change of plan meant Dan was going to be 3-4 miles further along than originally planned which would usually be fine and although I had 2 x 500ml bottles in my Ultimate Direction vest, it wasn’t enough for the next 13 miles and I found myself drinking the bottles dry and trying hard to not panic. A few stern words to self and a reminder that this is great prep for race problem solving (or just putting your big girl pants on) and I calmed down and remembered how many times I’ve run 5 miles in the heat with no water. No need to be silly. Things ALWAYS change in a race and you cannot have a strict schedule. This isn’t road marathon running any more where there is that bit more predictability on timings etc.
That moment I saw Dan it was like an Oasis in the desert. I cannot explain how good that plentiful water was! Bottles topped up and gallons of water downed, Soreen in hand and I was back off on my way ready for the first big climb up Ditchling Beacon.
One of the big focuses for this run was to keep my heart rate in zone 2. I have invested in a Wahoo arm band which works so well – I don’t like chest straps but wearing the monitor on my forearm feels so much better and is equally as accurate. With soaring temperatures and big climbs, keeping my HR low was hard. The more I drank and ate the better it was to manage but keeping zone 2 was almost impossible in exposed heat so I did the best I could instead. Not going to lie, reaching the top of Devils Dyke, I was firmly on the struggle bus. None of this is new to me. In races and in life there are times that are damn hard. Yes, I had moments of “I could just go home, no one will know” but what’s the point in that? I’m not going to quit because its hard or I’m not going as fast as I’d like. The glory is in proving yourself wrong. Proving you’re tougher than you imagined and that you do come out the other side of something hard.
As I dropped back off Devil’s Dyke, I knew that it was mostly downhill to the finish. I could see the sea in the distance calling me and I could use gravity as my best pal. After a last water top-up with Dan and Albie it would be the home stretch.
That last 10k was hard. I was 3 miles further in than I had planned and it wasn’t easy to keep going alone in the heat. Before starting out I was aiming for a faster time but on a hot day with a route I didn’t know I was still pretty pleased with it so I smiled and reminded myself why I was doing this. That I actually loved this and it is everything that keeps my fire stoked. That feeling of pushing yourself and fighting that monkey on your shoulder. It was the challenge I set myself and no cheeky monkey was going to persuade me to give up.
The last few miles were the least attractive running through housing estates and concrete but it made it easier to push on to the seaside. From the trails to the beach – the BEST way to go. As I got closer and closer that bubbling feeling of joy started to spill over and I couldn’t believe I had done it when I arrived at the sea front. There was no finish line but I certainly made my own finish line feels. That pride in achievement was amazing. I had run totally solo and was lucky enough to have my crew with me along the way. The self-doubt was squashed, I had achieved a new Fastest Known Time and I had proved to myself that I am that bit tougher than I thought.
Here are the important stats; fuel consumed: 4 x 160 Maurten sachets, 6 x GUs (mocha, mint chocolate, salted caramel & Birthday cake), 2 x apple Soreen slices & 1 x Rice Krispie Square as well as 4 litres of water (some with hydro tabs).
I highly recommend making your own finish line. It doesn’t have to be super far or done fast. It just has to scare you a tiny bit.
Next challenge please!
(If you fancy a gander at the route it’s below)